Gategate: Mitchell admits using f-bomb - but not 'plebs'
Chief Whip has 60-40 chance of hanging on to job says minister, as friends say it’s his word against the police officers’
ANDREW MITCHELL’S political future was hanging by a thread this morning as speculation mounted that he will be forced to resign over claims he called police guards at the gates of Downing Street “plebs”. One minister told The Sunday Telegraph that Mitchell’s chances of holding on to his job as Chief Whip were no better than 60-40.
Mitchell, who now bears the epithet ‘Thrasher’ in most media reports, is also alleged to have sworn at the police, but it is the snobbish connotations of the word ‘pleb’ that is causing so much damage. David Cameron’s Conservatives are vulnerable to the charge that they are dominated by posh public school boys.
One MP told The Sunday Times: “In a two-minute tirade we are back to the worst caricatures of the party from the 1980s.”
Mitchell’s fate now hangs on whether it can be proven that he has lied about what was said during the incident, now known as ‘gategate’.
The Sunday Telegraph’s Matthew D’Ancona has weighed in on Mitchell’s behalf, saying he does not believe the Chief Whip would call the police plebs. In his column today, he gives the minister’s version of events.
D’Ancona says that, as Mitchell left Downing St at 7.30pm on Wednesday last week, he asked the police guards: “Would you be so kind as to open the gate?”
When the request was refused he said: “Look, I’m the Chief Whip, I work at Number 9.” When that didn’t work, Mitchell muttered to himself, but in earshot: “You guys are supposed to f***ing help us.”
It is a very different version of events to what The Sun reported last week. Mitchell is said to have shouted: “Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.” Since then, another eyewitness has come forward to claim Mitchell called the police officers “morons”.
A friend of Mitchell said: “He does not dispute he lost it a bit. It was in frustration at the episode and not aimed directly at the officers.
“He is absolutely not accusing anyone of lying. He realises there may be differing versions of what was said but he is adamant he did not use the words he is reported to have used.”
Another friend told The Independent on Sunday that even if a police officer’s notebook showed Mitchell had used the word “pleb” it would not change anything.
"He would be quite happy if there was some kind of proof of what was said, if there was a recording... At the end of the day it is one person's word against another. But he is absolutely confident."
The friend added: "What nobody wants is to start a row with the police over this.”
But a row is exactly what has erupted, with senior police chiefs taking the side of the police officers.
John Tully, the chairman of the Metropolitan police federation, has been briefed on the contents of the Downing Street police notebooks and called on Mitchell to resign “as quickly as possible”.
Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, the incoming head of the Police Superintendents’ Association, called for an official inquiry into Mitchell’s behaviour. She said new witnesses had come forward. “I would expect this matter to be looked at again and Mitchell specifically asked to explain what he said,” Curtis told The Sunday Times.
“Consideration should then be given as to whether it is appropriate for Mitchell to continue in his role as chief whip.”
And while minister without portfolio Ken Clarke has defended Mitchell as a “courteous man”, other prominent Conservatives have been less supportive.
Former Conservative Party chairman Lord Tebbit said on his blog that Mitchell's outburst was “extraordinarily stupid”.
Boris Johnson is said to be “unimpressed”. The London mayor has in the past called for people who swear at police to be arrested.
And Conservative MEP Dan Hannan said: “It’s hard to think of worse behaviour than insulting a police officer who is ready to place himself between you and a bullet.”
Meanwhile, other tales of Mitchell’s alleged snobbishness have been leaking out in the papers. The Independent on Sunday claims that during the last Tory leadership election, when Mitchell was campaigning on behalf of the older David Davis against the younger David Cameron, he said: "Someone recently gave me a few bottles of Château Latour 2000. I think it would be wiser for me to leave it in the cellar for quite a few years yet before I open it, and I would give the same advice to some of the younger leadership contenders."